Friday, February 25, 2011

Shankar Mahadevan Launches Online Music Academy (Article Reflection)

Shankar Mahadevan launches online music academy

Press Trust of India

Tuesday, February 22, 2011 (Houston)


I read an interesting article that announced the establishment of an online academy of music education. Indian composer and musician Shankar Mahadevan will be launching the Shankar Mahadevan Academy with the hopes of changing the music education of non-resident Indian residents living in the United States. His goal is to provide the NRIs "closer to their roots and impart structured education in Indian classical music simply from the convenience of their homes." The online academy will provide its students with the two items that Mahadevan deems as essential to any learning environment: a textbook and access to a teacher. The site will act as the text, and the online teachers will be available during specific, scheduled times throughout the day. According to Mahadevan, customarily within the culture of traditional Indian music, students are taught in a very informal and unstructured manner; his online academy is now imparting “structure” and “form” to classical Indian music, and filling this existing gaps, which separate this music from that which is learned in other institutes of music education, such as Berklee College or Juilliard School of Music. Additionally, the online music academy will also incorporate methods of using technology to make the act of acquiring a “high-quality music education” through a way that makes it “fun”, and available to NRIs worldwide. Courses offered through the Shankar Mahadevan community will unfold over a 12 week duration, and will be taught through a combination of the online music textbook OM (Online Music), interactive music lessons with a qualified music teacher, and assessments. Upon successful completion of these courses, students will receive a certificate in their area of study, including: Carnatic and Hindustani vocal courses or in one of the other individual courses in Bollywood, folk, religious chanting, and other styles of music instruction.


Through my first reading of the article describing Shankar Mahadevan’s online music education academy it sounds like the perfect solution, to a common, cultural musical problem. It’s eloquent wording and ease of global access that provides a “high quality Indian Music education” to learners, almost effortlessly, seems to be too good to be true. However, a closer review of this capitalistic venture highlights some of the shortcomings and contradictory aspects to this approach at providing a culturally-rich context of music education. For instance, Mahadevan emphasizes the “unstructured”, informal, yet culturally specific way in which Indian classical music is taught. In my eyes, I see this very mode of Indian classical music education as being one of its defining features, and one which should be preserved in order to fully engage in a meaningful, music experience, as per Indian cultural tradition. I see the very practice of music acquisition in a culture, be it Indian, North American, or any one of the global plethora of others, as being a crucial element of the music itself. This online academy has ignored this informally-learned aspect of the rich Indian musical culture, and has instead, transformed it into an economic commodity in order to generate a profit, in a musical style that is not Indian, but is instead, very much North American, in nature. When music stops being taught, learned, and experienced for its very sake, but is instead produced and sold as a consumer “good”, we have lost the essence of music. Mahadevan’s academy is one such case. Moreover, by reducing traditional Indian classical music from a musical experience that is learned by doing, observing, and participating in shared musical moments to that which is learned through reading, and practicing by oneself, it also shows a clear divergence from the music itself. When the purpose of music-making is no longer the experience and activity itself but it is the receipt of a certificate declaring one’s musicality, we must reevaluate. Traditional Indian classical music is lost in this online academy.

In my approach to music teaching, I try to hold the musical genre and the learner in close proximation. Thus, I attempt to keep the music within its most appropriate context, and try to ensure that the teaching and learning process is carried out in a way that remains true to the specific music that is being taught. All genres cannot be approached in a one-dimensional teaching model, nor do all musics fit all learners or audiences. I will emphasize musical understanding and technical proficiency, as, and to the degree that it applies to the music itself, but I will also try to ensure that the student does not lose sight of the larger musical experience; this happens when music becomes a joint experience between not only myself and my student(s), but with an audience of listeners to share in this musical event. While the pursuit of musical excellence and proficiency provides feelings of self-worth, and self-accomplishment, I see the act of music making as one that needs to be enjoyed in a social context, as opposed to isolation. This article reminds me how important the social aspect of music truly is, and makes me anxious to continue to seek out opportunities for both myself and my students to both listen to the music created and shared by those around us, and also, to share and participate in collective experiences of music.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Music as Therapy: A Bio-Cultural Problem (A Review)

Music as Therapy: A Bio-Cultural Problem by Carol E. Robertson-DeCarbo discusses the application of music as a healing tool from a cultural perspective. The article also presents various views of mental illness, symptomotology and physiology, from social anthropology with the intention of validating the significance of cultural cognition as demonstrated by the role of music in psychotherapy. For the purpose of this article discussion, I will primarily centre the summary on the segments which discuss the diverse cultural approaches to music as a tool of therapy.

Robertson-DeCarbo writes that one may find difficulty in defining mental illness, (symptoms, treatment, and hospitalization) on a cross-cultural level. What may be viewed as acceptable behaviour in one society may have a different significance in another.

As we are living in a multi-cultural society, I, as a practitioner of music therapy, see the value and importance of validating the cultural beliefs of the client and then working with that client to deliver a program which is conducive to healing. This can be achieved by prescribing music therapy which utilizes musical elements with cultural relevance to the client.

Robertson-DeCarbo (1974) states that in order to relate music as therapy and its relevance to ethnomusicology and anthropology, the following criteria should first be considered:

a) Culture as the provider of series (or sets) of communication.

b) A system of neurological mediating schemata through which the individual selects appropriate behavioural patterns condoned by his society.

c) Culture as the provider of an “environment” or context for mental illness.

d) Culture as therapy through possible re-association and re-ordering of communication sets.

e) Methods (in this case, music) by which a series of communications can be restated for the reinforcement of the behavioural values set by the social context.

The brain is a powerful instrument; within the cortex of the temporal lobe, the knowledge of ‘how to respond’ is stored, says Robertson-DeCarbo (1974). She explains that extensive research has been performed on how information is filtered through the complex system of schemata in a constant flow of signals. Most psychopathic cases, according to Robertson-DeCarbo, not resulting from chemical alterations, point to a breakdown in communication, indicating that ‘traffic directions’ have been confused. She proposes the idea of the ability of music to help re-establish this lost communication.

Western therapists, as stated by Robertson-DeCarbo, are beginning to note that music is often the only effective stimulus for many psychotic patients, in particular those in a catatonic stage. She writes that a person who often refuses to eat, sit in more than one position, speak, or even open his/hers eyes will often respond to sound stimulus.

When I was a music therapy intern at a psychiatric hospital, I had the opportunity to work with a patient with similar “inhibitions” as described above. The patient was a young Haitian woman (between 17-19 yrs of age) who refused to eat the food provided by the hospital. The young woman complained several times that she was not familiar with the food.

During one of our weekly music therapy sessions, I paired music from her native Haiti with her dinner time. The music, as stated by Robertson-DeCarbo, created an environment which was familiar as well as safe for the young woman. The result was 4 spoons of mashed potatoes eaten.

While at the same internship facility, I had another enlightening encounter with a patient, an older woman from Korea with a pre-diagnosed psychosis, who refused to speak. She would often wander the halls, seemingly disconnected from her environment. Following some discussion with the music therapy supervisors, I took the initiative to create a music listening activity where Korean gospel music would be played for the music therapy group. The immediate response from the Korean patient was a smile of acknowledgment to me, followed by singing, as she recognized the music. Music is a powerful tool which can be effective in evoking verbal response.

Robertson-DeCarbo states that the music approach in therapy has been used in folk psychiatry for centuries. She says that the aim of music therapists in Western culture is to bring about changes in behaviour through music. The goal of the non-Western curing specialist is also to bring about change through external stimuli, one of which is music. In both cases, the music serves as the bridge to re-establish and reinforce the patient’s past social background and context to the world she/he has been disconnected.

This article has provided useful information as to the importance of music in therapy. It has also validated the application of music, when utilized in a cultural context, to create an atmosphere which promotes communication and participation. In short, the use of music as an intervention tool can be a great compliment to any helping profession.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

mozart in the jungle: sex, drugs and classical music

Article: mozart in the jungle: sex, drugs and classical music (Blair Tindall)


An article that describes the “dark side” of musical training to many young students, Blair Tindall addresses many issues that students may encounter throughout the course of taking private musical lessons – in which these issues may not be exposed nearly as much to the world, nor are many people in society even aware of the consequences.

Behind closed doors to a music studio, students have suffered consequences of being asked or told to do tasks they may feel uncomfortable in, or possibly what is regarded as harassment. Because teaching music involves physical contact, the thin line draws between whether or not the teacher is still teaching the pupil, or he/she may be possessing thoughts of action that can bring harm to the pupil’s personal space and rights.

Spatial awareness becomes a very important key concept as young pupils are thrown into competitive situations in school, orchestra and amongst their own age group. Playing for the first time in a large orchestral situation not only can be nerve-racking but stimulate a sense of fear and worry. In these situations, the look and attitude of an authoritative figure becomes a key turning point. One smile can bring more relaxation to the pupil’s fingers and emotion, one frown can also steer the course in a total different direction. As the authoritative figure – conductor, teacher, colleague, etc – has the power to assist or fail the student, what choice should he/she make when these students are put up for the task of playing a solo or demonstrating what everyone considers to be virtuosic?

Blair describes her first orchestral playing experience, in which she was expected to play a solo passage in front of the orchestra. Naturally, stage freight kicked in as her heart pounded faster and louder. Harsanyi’s, her conductor at the time, choice of attitude to approach her first “stage appearance” most certainly did not help at all, including rough comments, frowns, as well as direct criticism in front of the entire orchestra. Verbal abuse tore Blair apart as she finished her passage trembling with fear. Without doubt, her level of confidence was immediately smashed, and would most certainly require large periods of time to overcome.

As a freshmen entering a music program, Blair fell into the traps of sex, drugs and alcohol. After her first failed rehearsal, comforting words and caring faces welcomed her into a totally different world, in which she felt a sense of home, a fallback, people she could turn to. Jose, a senior violinist who introduced her to all these “wonderful” aspects of college. It didn’t last long before Blair realized what she experienced was all short term. Nevertheless, her “social” life at school effected her love towards music deeply, as she began to doubt her own skills, question her future and re-think whether or not she would even want to continue a musical path?

Blair’s musical journey continued to be a roller coaster as she fell even further down into the affects of drugs, sex and alcohol. She soon resorted to “Phil” (a woodwinds teacher) after Jose dumped her, in which Phil was able to provide her with all of what Jose had, with the addition of money. Her story stretched from the United States all the way to Europe as she had the opportunity to tour with the student orchestra – naturally Phil was by her side.

As if the roller coaster ride came to an end, Blair returned to her “regular” dorm life, attempting to finish her senior year, turning to drugs for comfort when needed. An opportunity to visit New York city allowed her to fantasize what it would be like to be a musician in a big city? Mingling with other artists in fields of drama and dance, Blair heard similar stories from students that experienced what she went through. Dancers struggled especially when they (re)considered their sexual identity as well as their physical appearance. What does this all mean for musicians of the future? Blair questioned and re-questioned. As commencement approached, and she had successfully completed her music program, Blair could not bring herself to feeling proud. What lies ahead for her now? Is this what she really wants or has experienced? She did not have an answer.


The ‘ugly truth’ of music education was showcased through Blair’s story, revealing the dark side to music making and learning. Though her story was American based, numerous “Blair’s” can be found across the world, for it is almost a “human” trait to behave in certain ways. I was always aware of Blair’s stories, however never knowing that it would be this extreme. Naturally, different demographics in the world may have different variations of Blair’s story, yet the fundamentals that cause these stories will most likely be the same.

Music in my mind shouldn’t be this ‘hard’ to learn, nor should it become a weapon for human interaction to become such a harmful experience. The positive notes and lessons taught to teachers in teacher training programs are only there for good measures, what lies beneath the table and behind closed doors should be a bigger issue for parents, students and teachers to be aware of. If all musicians experienced Blair’s story, what does this say about our future generation? How is music being portrayed?

Music has always been recognized as a method to be expressive, and allow humans to indulge in their own emotions while sharing (or not) it with the world. I think educators need to constantly think about this concept, and possibly re-think their philosophies to teaching, allowing them to “stay on track” even after years of teaching music. A pupil is like a young tree, in which it is up to the grower to nurture it, water it, and shape it. Many teachers neglect the fact that the “shaping” process is often the most difficult and most easiest to drive off-course. Blair’s story was a great example of her initial contact with her teacher(s) turning out to be a negative start, causing her to go downhill from there and on. Using her story as a reminder, I think teachers need to remember and look upon the consequences before they begin “shaping” a student in the wrong direction.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

On Behalf of the Ugly in Music (A Review)

Richard Marsella, in his writing "On Behalf of the Ugly in Music" (Marsella, 2004), raises the idea of employing "wild" sounds which we often consider to be "noise" into our musical practices. Broadening our creative visions of what constitutes music, allowing it to include the sounds by which we are constantly surrounded, in our daily lives, inspires our imaginations and entices young learners as it holds such unlimited potential. He challenges all music teachers to question what they define as the "good", "beautiful" music, and instead, work towards expanding their musical curriculum to include various unusual sources and practices of music production. Marsella's end goal is much more diverse musical smorgasbord.

Humans tend to dwell on the "beautiful" musics, which, according to Marsella, stifles our imaginations. Our view of how music must sound is one that is shaped by our society. It becomes glaringly obvious to the youngest of music students, just what sounds are "ugly", and which we instead, are taught and reminded to always aspire to produce. It is not generally accepted, as music educators, that we encourage our learners to hear various everyday sounds as potential elements of music, but rather to aim to replicate a sound that is familiar, and has been done, many times over. However, limiting our musical palates and failing to seek out new ways of hearing these sounds, is a step in the wrong direction. Instead, to reflect the constant transformation of our society, our music should be evolving to encompass new sounds and methods of musical production, in conjunction with our existing notions of traditional music. For instance, applying classical structure to newly created, "found" instruments, would shed light on a tradition that is becoming dated, and give it a more innovate, modern sound. Marsella suggests that we must not be afraid to explore the "darker sides of art". He goes on to say:
It has been important for me to approach music from every angle, from the recording of incredibly angry and sometimes destructive music, to the calming side of my solo classical guitar playing. I love these extremes in my musical personality, and embrace each side as viable commuicative forms. (p.138)

He also examines our fear of "chaos in music", and presents a strong argument to support its inclusion in our teaching practices. By removing some of the confines of musical structure, children are more apt to be excited to cultivating their own musical styles and tastes, and in turn, act as catalysts for our changing musical tastes. He continues on to highlight some of these noisy examples of music.

One such instance of the success that ensue from a lack of musical structure are the Nihilist Spasm Band, a group from London, Ontario, to which Marsella belongs. This collection of men, who are without any formalized musical training, relies upon their love for chaos and improvisation in their art of music-making. For 35 years, fuelled by their genuine love for music, alone, and relying upon only their homemade musical instruments, these men have established their reputation as a "pioneering [musical] group" (p.139). Despite their lack of formal structure and musical instruction, these men are united in their musical efforts, and continue to pursue these musical acts. Such leads Marsella to question our approach to music education.

The article continues on to discuss our desire to maintain a bland musical taste. Marsella compares the way we struggle to reproduce a musical copy of sounds that have been heard before, to that of a "fast-food diet" (p.140). Just as chefs are fearless in their flavourful experimentation, we as musicians must be brave in our search for new sounds, instruments, and in turn, musical creations. To do so, he encourages us to think differently about these new, formerly ugly sounds. Rather than working tirelessly at "polishing" (p. 144) our musical repertoire, without giving consideration to new possibilities or methods of interpretation and improvisation, we should follow the advice of Miles Davis and respect our musical mistakes. Such an idea would lead to challenge, and creative input, and give musical ownership to the performer. It is this very creative zest, and imagination, according to Marsella, that our current generation of young learners, our youth of today, is desperately lacking. He cautions that we must be careful not to allow the influence of our mass media to control and dictate the musical tastes of our children, as it causes them to blindly accept the musical trends which are easily accessible and driven by the mass media (p. 141). In doing so, our children lose their personal sense of identity and musical tastes, and simply subscribing to that of the majority.

Marsella's insights into what we have socially-constructed as comprising what is beautiful in music, causes me to reevaluate my own musical practices, dramatically. I will be the first to admit my guilt in this one-dimensional approach to music. A perfectionist by nature, I have always tended to stick to the established patterns of doing, especially when it comes to the music that I play and teach to my students. I have held the belief that in order for music to be the most correct and the most beautiful, one had to adhere to the strict musical structures and traditional methods. I did not consider myself to be musically successful until my own music bore perfect likeness to that of a recording; any unplanned uniqueness or creativity was reason to start again, or abandon the repertoire altogether. Musical genius was that which was predictable and premeditated. That was how I had been taught, how I viewed my musicianship, and how I approached my students. Reflecting on the idiocy of this vision, it is only now that I am losing my sense of guilt for being different, and in fact, proud to be so.

I struggled for many years following my undergraduate career in music. In my first year of study, I suffered a tremendous blow to my musical ego, and in turn, lost most of the confidence which I had in my musicianship; it seemed that my teacher felt I lacked any skill required to produce music as was necessary for my success as a performer. Taking his views to heart, I stopped playing for many years following my degree, and only recently, have regained the nerve to return to my passion for making music. I have finally realized that the measure of my musicianship is not my ability to copy and reproduce that which has been done before. Rather, it is in my freedom of approach and creative prowess where the best music is made. I do not have to hear my shaking fingers, shallow tone or uneven rhythms. Instead, I hear my interpretation, and my creative passion at work, and that is what fuels my love for music. Whether I am sitting at my piano, humming a familiar or improvised tune or simply walking with a rhythm and jingling my key chain, music is in the ears of the beholders. Marsella has made me realize that the more we allow ourselves to listen and hear different sounds, opening our minds to new musical possibilities, the greater the musical potential that we unleash. As musical educators, we hold the keys to unlocking our regimented, societal definition of beauty in music: as soon as we teach our students to be creative listeners, we, as a society will allow our musical tastes to become more diverse, and from there, the possibilities are endless!